In Russia, a Tajik citizen is detained on charges of spying for Ukraine

Sharifjon Tillazoda, the suspected Tajik spy, in Russia. Photo from his personal Facebook page.

On October 11, Tajik citizen Sharifjon Tillazoda was arrested in Moscow on the charges of spying for Ukraine. The Lefortovo District Court in Moscow placed Tillazoda in a pre-trial detention center for two months, after receiving a petition from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

This became the first instance of a Tajik national being detained in Russia on such charges. If found guilty, Tillazoda will face up to 20 years of prison time. This was eyebrow raising news, given that Tajikistan has close political, economic, and social ties with Russia, and hundreds of Tajik nationals and natives have joined the Russian army and the Wagner Group to fight in Ukraine. If the allegations are true, this represents a new phase in the participation of Tajik nationals and natives in the war in Ukraine.

Military base, double citizenship, and migrant workers

Tajikistan is one of the five Central Asian states, bordering Afghanistan to the south and China to the east. It has a population of 10.1 million people. In contrast to its  neighbors where people speak Turkic languages, Tajikistan is a Persian speaking nation, which partially explains its budding relations with Iran in the last few years. It gained independence in 1991 following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Between 1992 and 1997, the country went through a brutal civil war that left more than 100,000 people dead. Since 1992, Tajikistan has been ruled by the same president Emamoli Rahmon. During his rule, Rahmon has consolidated power and established an authoritarian regime. In 2023, Freedom House assigned the country a democracy score of 1 out of 7, reflecting the country’s repressive political context.

Here is a YouTube video about the Tajik Civil War.

Tajikistan hosts Russia’s largest foreign military base, the 201st. Additionally, Tajikistan is a member of the Moscow-led military bloc Collective Security Treaty Organization. Russia is Tajikistan’s largest trading partner and a major investor.

Russia is also a primary destination country for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who leave Tajikistan in search of employment. In 2022, their number was reported at 987,000. The remittances sent home by migrant workers make up 34.5 percent of the country’s GDP. Facilitating this migration flow is the intergovernmental agreement between Russian and Tajikistan that allows double citizenship. In 2022, a record breaking 173,634 Tajik nationals received Russian passports.

Recruitment by all means

With the start of war in Ukraine, Russian passports started carrying a costly military burden. The first evidence of naturalized Tajik Russians’ participation in the war appeared in March 2022, when the bodies of dead Tajik soldiers started arriving in Tajikistan. All of them were reported to have obtained Russian passports.

Russian authorities have been using all possible means to recruit migrant workers. Rights defenders that work with Tajik migrant workers have reported numerous cases when those with Russian passports being summoned to enlistment centers under the threat of being stripped of their citizenship if they fail to show up. Those without Russian passports are promised an expedited path to receiving one in exchange for serving in the Russian Army. On September 20, Russia’s State Duma adopted a bill that promises citizenship in exchange for one year of military service.

Here is a YouTube video about Tajik nationals’ participation in the war in Ukraine.

The recruitment of Tajik nationals has not gone smoothly, however. On October 11, two Tajik nationals recruited to the Russian army opened fire at the training polygon, killing 11 and injuring 15 mobilized soldiers in the Belgorod region. Allegedly, one of the officers in charge had made insensitive remarks about Islam, which the Tajik soldiers, who were Muslim, found offensive.

Alongside migrant workers, Russian authorities and the Wagner group have been recruiting Tajik nationals held at Russian prisons with a promise of hefty payment and amnesty. In 2020, their number was estimated at 10,000. It is not clear how many of them went to war, but there are clues. In August of 2023, Tajikistan’s Minister of Interior stated that 100 Tajik nationals held in Russian prisons ended up in Ukraine. In June 2023, BBC released its investigation about 93 Wagner fighters from Central Asia, who died in Ukraine. 40 of them were from Tajikistan.

The most recent evidence of the recruitment of Tajik migrant workers and prisoners suggests that Russian authorities have switched to more violent methods. They consist of the law-enforcement bodies conducting raids in places frequented by Tajik migrant workers with the goal of finding and delivering them to enlistment centers where they are forced to sign a military contract. Those without Russian passports are forced to do the same under the threat of being deported.

Ukraine's first Tajik spy or a victim of circumstances?

Not much is known about Tillazoda’s case. Reportedly, he is 32 years old. In 2018, he graduated from Tajikistan’s State Institute of Arts with a degree in acting. Before arriving in Russia, Tillazoda lived in Turkey where he failed to kickstart his acting career.

In September 2023, in an interview with Radio Ozodi, Tillazoda shared that he signed a military contract with Russia’s Defense Ministry and underwent training in the Moscow region. He admitted doing so out of desperation, after failing to find a job in Russia and running out of money.

According to his friends, Tillazoda did not want to go fight in Ukraine. In fact, he somehow managed to leave the training polygon a day before September 20, when he was scheduled to be sent off to the frontline. They said that he may have been arrested and accused of espionage for refusing to go to the war. Also,the photos and videos of the training polygon Tillazoda shared on his social media may have gotten him in trouble with the FSB.

Before the allegations of espionage, on September 20, Tillazoda was detained at an undisclosed location in the Moscow region at a closed military territory, which he allegedly admitted to entering without authorization. On September 22, the Odintsovo City Court of the Moscow region found him guilty of violating the rules of staying in Russia and authorized his deportation. By the time the FSB brought espionage charges against him, Tillazoda was in a special facility awaiting deportation. The FSB has not disclosed any details of the case with regards to his spying activities.

Russian Telegram channel Mash reported that the investigation showed that Tillazoda worked directly with Ukraine’s armed forces and collected intelligence for them, including locations of air-defense systems in the Moscow region.

Another account of the events, shared by his acquaintances, states that, on September 15, Tillazoda shared on his social media account that he was going to join Ukraine’s armed forces after completing his training in Russia. That post was deleted the next day, but Tajik security services saw it and sent the details to their colleagues in Russia, which prompted the espionage allegations. It is unclear why he would share such sensitive information on social media though.

If the allegations are true, Tillazoda’s decision to side with Ukraine’s armed forces will not come as a shocking surprise. There are already cases of Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen soldiers fighting for Ukraine against the Russian army. More importantly, this may be a sign of a new competition between Moscow and Kyiv for the allegiance of Central Asian migrant workers. Just as they can aid Russia’s war efforts, whilst being in Russia, they can prove effective for Ukraine’s intelligence gathering operations.

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